Category Archives: Baseball

Novels, bios, analyses and history of our national pastime

This Dark Road to Mercy by Wiley Cash

book coverThere is a lot of used-to-be in Wiley Cash’s sophomore novel, This Dark Road to Mercy. Wade Chesterfield used to be a baseball player, used to be a husband and used to be a father. But he went oh-for three and now, as a guy who used to hang drywall and is on the run, he is mostly a crook.

Bobby Pruitt had been a ballplayer too, but his damaged youth led him in a dark direction, and now he is an enforcer for a local thug. He would like to apply his professional skills to Wade, not only in service of his current employer, but as personal payback for something Wade had done to him on the ballfield. He presents a clear and present danger not only to Wade but to his family.

book cover

Wiley Cash

Brady Weller used to be a police detective, but after he was involved in an event that left a boy dead, he became an installer of home security systems, working for his brother-in-law. There is more going on with Brady, though. He is also a court-appointed guardian to children in need of such protection in Gastonia, North Carolina. This includes two young girls.

Easter Quillby hasn’t been around long enough yet to have much in her rear-view. But more than most pre-teens. Wade had surrendered custody of her and her little sister, Ruby, a few years back, and mom died recently of a drug overdose. Have a nice childhood. She and Ruby live in a state-run orphanage.

Writing in the voice of a child has its risks and rewards. Children often lack the power of reflection that adults possess, so their narratives can charge forward without the breaks of reflection or evaluation. Adults are more cautious, especially about what they divulge. If a child is an unreliable narrator it’s probably because he or she doesn’t fully understand what he or she is talking about. If an adult is an unreliable narrator then it means that he or she is hiding something. But child narrators also offer a challenge in terms of their emotional make-up. Their reactions to tragedies great and small are often displayed in similar ways. A young child’s reaction to the death of a pet can be similar to the reaction to the death of a family member. With that in mind, you have to be very careful about how you portray a child’s emotional scale. You want the reader to be able to intuit its depth even if the child’s reaction doesn’t reflect it. – Cash ,in an interview with Crime Fiction Lovers

Easter, Brady and Pruitt are the three alternating narrators through whose eyes we see the events in Cash’s tale. We see Wade mostly through Easter’s eyes.

The action of the novel consists of Wade re-entering the girls’ lives after years of absence, snatching his daughters to join him as he flees dark elements in Gastonia, Pruitt pursuing Wade do him harm, and Brady trying to protect the girls. There are white-knuckle moments in this chase.

One of the true strengths of Wiley Cash’s debut novel, A Land More Kind Than Home, was his portrayal of children. That gift is manifest in full power here. Easter certainly reminds one of Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird, and the usual Stephen King pre-ad heroes and heroines. And with a name like Easter you’ve gotta figure she is gonna be reborn someway, somehow. Name a girl Ruby and I expect most of us might think of slippers and “There’s no place like home.” That would make sense here, for a girl who is hoping to have a family again. But it is Easter who will hold your attention and your affection. When there is danger afoot you will really, really want for Easter to be ok. She is not only a tough and decent kid, she is a very well-drawn one, and the best thing about this book

There are several threads (maybe red stitching?) running through The Dark Road…. Baseball figures large. Page 1 introduces Easter on a ballfield. Wade was a professional player, as was Pruitt. And when baseball is in play, one need not look too far to bring in the element of steroids. Wade and Pruitt have a history with them, and one of them still imbibes. And speaking of steroids, the time is 1998, and McGwire and Sosa are engaged in the most famous ‘roid-fueled home run derby of our age. The contest is large in the consciousness of these characters, and a subject of widespread daily conversation in the environments they inhabit. The heavy-hitters’ contest is even used in a very Hitchcockian way to provide a dramatic backdrop for the climax.

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The Race is On

Another seam here is parenting. Wade is not a complete screw-up. He may not have made the best choices, and he may not be, exactly, the best person, but he does love his kids, and wants to be a father to them. But abandoning them for several years and snatching them on his way out of town was probably not what a good parent might do. Pruitt’s upbringing comes in for some inspection as well. And Brady copes with having a surly teenager he only gets to see some of the time. Finally, atonement comes in for a look. Wade may be a criminal, but he does want to make up for having left his children. He really wants to make a better life for them. Brady wants to atone for his part in the fatal accident, and does so by acting to protect vulnerable children. Pruitt is more interested in payback than atonement.

Another item you might keep an eye out for is the notion of what’s in a name.

Mom always said that she’d named us what she’d named us because those were her favorite things: Easter was her favorite holiday and rubies were her favorite jewels. Me and ruby used to ask Mom all the time what her other favorite things were, and we’d pretend those things were our names instead…It seems crazy to say we played make-believe like that now, but we used those names so much they almost became real.

Easter has to contend with a real-world decision concerning her name, and there is at least one adult in the story with a temporary alias, and another who has adopted a new name permanently.

Finally, this is a road trip, (it is even in the title) and that usually means a journey of self-discovery. The girls’ fondness for the computer game Oregon Trail foreshadows their later journey with Wade. What will these characters discover, how will they change, grow or wilt on this trip? A Catcher in the Rye mention does let us know there is some of coming of age going on. The girls are looking for a family. Pruitt is looking for revenge and Brady is looking for redemption. Wade is looking for some sort of gateway to a Promised Land.

”Oklahoma, Texas? California?” His eyes got bigger as he listed the names. “We could keep going clear on to the Pacific Ocean if we wanted to.”
“Then what?” I asked. “We can’t live in this car forever.”
“I don’t know,” Wade said again. “I guess that’s why they call it an adventure.”

This is an engaging and fast-paced story. A pretty fair read. I do have some gripes of course. While the attempt for a North by Northwest moment was ambitious, it was not fully realized. Of course by then you have already enjoyed 95 percent of the book so it is not a huge issue. I still read Stephen King and I usually do not much care for his endings either. I did feel that some decisions made by characters here were stage-managed a bit too much. Why such and like has to take place here and then might fit into the author’s desire for the most dramatic possible setting, but did not make all that much sense to me as something the characters would actually do. There are also some convenient events that are inserted into the story to prepare one for the finale. It seemed to me that these were artificial and a bit jarring. Fine, whatever. It’s still a pretty good read, and those elements might not make your Spidey senses tingle the way they did mine.

This Dark Road to Mercy is indeed dark, but illuminated. There is plenty of road to contrast with a desire for home, and sufficient dollops of mercy to soothe sundry pains. This road is one worth taking.

This review was posted on January 28, 2014 – the day the book was published

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

Interview in Crime Fiction Lovers – this is the source of the writer’s comments on writing kids quoted in the review

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Odd Man Out by Matt McCarthy

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In the 2002 ML baseball draft, Matt McCarthy, a Yale lefty with a fastball that had occasional familiarity with 90+mph was drafted in the 26th round by the Anaheim Angels. He was urged by friends and relations to keep a journal of his experiences, and those journals form the basis of this 2009 story of his single season in the sun of professional baseball.

When the book came out, there was a bit of a firestorm. McCarthy got some of his names, dates, and possibly facts wrong enough that the New York Times highlighted them in two articles. (The links are at the bottom of this review.) It does sound to me that he got a few things wrong. It is even possible that his characterization of this player or that might cause those people some harm. I have no way of knowing the truthfulness of McCarthy’s writing. But I am familiar with how difficult it can be to reconstruct events several years after the events, based on handwritten notes, so am inclined to give McCarthy the benefit of the doubt, and ascribe no malice to his writing. I expect that mistakes which do appear in the book are simply off the plate and are not intentional beanballs. In several instances, I expect that people are simply embarrassed at some of the revelations and it is easier to deny them than to take responsibility.

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Matt McCarthy

There are some items in the book that might be troublesome for some of the players. McCarthy describes behavior between players that indicates a gay inclination. And that is a barrier that MLB has not yet faced up to. McCarthy also reports on his Rookie League manager’s antics. These include directing his pitcher to hit an opposing batter in retaliation for Provo players having been hit, some mood-swinging, and a remarkable and humorous substitute for the team’s rally monkey. Some players are reported to be milking their disabled list status to avoid playing, and the ethnic separation of players is distinctive, with all Hispanic players, of whatever national origin, designated as “Dominicans” and all others as “Americans.”

So what’s the big deal? Frankly, I do not think there is one. I have read my share of baseball books, and I did not find this one to be exceptional. There were some bits of information that were not at all surprising, such as the use of steroids, (The only surprise might be that there were players who were not using) and the horrors of massive bus rides, the low-wage life that most of these players endure, and the mix of fresh blood on the way up and older players on the way down, high draft picks being handled with kid gloves, and lower draft picks being treated with far less kindness. Class as defined by draft rank may be different from class as defined by wealth or race, but the results are similar. The eagerness of some families in Provo to take in players for a season was a bit of news for me. Aside from a laugh here or there it was mostly pedestrian material, IMHO. That the coach was a character offered some spice. And a ballpark visit by Larry King, his much younger trophy wife and a vile offspring was amusing in a horrifying way.

While McCarthy writes in a very readable, breezy style, there are plenty of baseball books that offer more substance. Jim Bouton’s Ball Four remains the standard beaver-shoot-and-tell example if you are looking for player shenanigans. Bottom of the 33rd: Hope, Redemption, and Baseball’s Longest Game is another that offers a look at the minors, although for a much more defined moment in time. Slouching Toward Fargo by Neal Karlen gives the reader some sense of the non-ML minors.

McCarthy, realistic about his pro-ball prospects, always kept a hand in his other career option, and continued working and studying towards a life in medicine, no, not sports medicine, but infectious diseases. He is now a practicing physician.

Odd Man Out is neither a grand slam nor a strikeout, but more of a seeing eye single ahead of a stolen base.

Posted October 15, 2013

======================================= EXTRA STUFF

Two articles noted above, from the New York Times, both by Benjamin Hill and Alan Schwarz, both published March 2, 2009
Errors Cast Doubt on a Baseball Memoir
and
Excerpts From a Disputed Baseball Memoir

And a more respectful interview – Matt McCarthy, author of ‘Odd Man Out,’ talks with USA TODAY by Dan Friedell

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Filed under Baseball, Bio/Autobio/Memoir, Non-fiction, Reviews

Bottom of the 33rd by Dan Barry

book cover In the song Take Me Out to the Ballgame there is a particular line that comes into play here. Buy me some peanuts and cracker jack. I don’t care if I never get back.

That sentiment was put to the test on April 18, 1981, in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, when the Pawtucket Red Sox and the Rochester Red Wings played the longest game in professional baseball history. Given that the song is generally sung in the middle of the 7th inning, or after six and a half innings of play, the fans, had they been of a mind, could have sung the tune four more times before the game was finally concluded.

Dan Barry, a sports columnist for the New York Times, a guy who had lived in Pawtucket for four years, uses this singular game as a structure around which to build his depiction of minor league baseball, more particularly Triple-A level baseball, using the example here to stand in for the whole.

His approach is one that would give anyone with a generous dose of OCD a thrill. I did not keep track of the number of individuals who are mentioned and for whom Barry offers at least a little biographical info, but I expect it easily squirts past the defenders into triple digit territory. There is no index available for cheating and coming up with a credible number. Leave it that if a cat had wandered into the field during that game, Barry probably interviewed it, and I expect had he been able to identify the gulls that were in attendance, they would undoubtedly be pretty sick of him asking them about the game, and checking their eggs to find out if the unborn heard anything their feathered parental units might have mentioned about it. I do not mean this as a knock, but merely to offer a sense of Barry’s overall approach. It is reminiscent of an actual baseball field, a wide swath, covered in grass, only inches deep, but with particular parts that emerge, and form the more significant elements of his story, the mound, the bases. One or two deserve mention.

In one of the true rarities in baseball, the owner of the Pawtucket Red Sox sounds like he was a pretty decent guy. We learn about him lending a helping hand when the help really was for someone else and not just a roundabout way of helping himself. The best element was Barry’s look at Dave Koza, a career minor-leaguer who was known for his home runs, but whose major league career only had warning track power, a Crash Davis sort. Barry looks at Koza (really, someone must have nicknamed him “Lost”, but we never come across that here.) His story carries all the hope-and-dream elements that drive so many of these young men. Dave was the fellow who would get the game-winning hit in the bottom of the 33rd.

Barry gives us an illuminating look at the history of the stadium in which the game was played, tells us about the umpires, the ball boy, the intern, the security guard, the where-are-they-nows, the whole nine yards innings, or in this case thirty three. In a way it struck me as having something in common with rain delays, when hapless broadcasters (yes, he looks at those guys too) have to work extra hard to come up with material to cover the dead air between pitches. Barry certainly does work hard, and manages not only to fill in the blanks, I think he may have actually created some to give himself more time to fill.

If you are a baseball fan, this is a fun book. It is nice to know that Rich Gedman, Wade Boggs, Bruce Hurst, Cal Ripkin Jr,. Bobby Ojeda, and a few other eventual pros took part in the game, and that a game of such duration was ultimately made possible by a cut-and-paste failure in the updating of the league rule book. It is nice to learn of Bobby O’s role in sparking behavior that had once gotten a batboy ejected from a game. It is fun to hear that Mike Hargrove’s extended at-bat preparations earned him the moniker “The Human Rain Delay.” If you are not a baseball fan, Bottom of the 33rd offers a look at a piece of American culture that is as true today as it was over thirty years ago.

I can tell you from painful personal experience here in New York City that it is generally a bad idea to go to a ballgame in April. Hell, May and maybe even June, can feel like a wind-blown tundra in our stadiums. And farther north and east it must be even worse. It is no shock that only nineteen spectators made it through the entirety of the game. The book will take a lot less time to read than the game took to be played, and you will not be in danger of having bodily parts crystallize and drop off while you are completing it.

Bottom of the 33rd may not be a grand slam, but it is at least a hustle-triple. And it is definitely a good idea to Root, root, root for the home team.

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